Tag Archives: Doubt

Outgrowing Christianity?

candle-blown-outA couple of weeks ago I was browsing blogs and read Rachel Held Evans’ post “On ‘Outgrowing’ American Christianity.” Evans is speaking of a particular kind of evangelical Christianity, and notes especially, the situatedness of all theological reflection. One of her correspondents, however, goes further, and speaks of outgrowing Christianity, and not simply a particular expression of it:

Leaving the evangelical church for a more liturgical church (Anglican and Episcopal) was my first step towards atheism. What began as an earnest soul-searching attempt to deepen my faith, thanks in part to the gay marriage debate, led our devout Christian family towards the search for another denomination. In researching the various denominational stances on gay marriage and other issues, we ended up towards the Episcopal end of the spectrum. Eventually, after months and then years of searching for the right church for our family, we gave up on organized religion. Our search exposed the same ugliness and patterns in every denomination we explored. Letting go of organized religion was shocking and absolutely the last thing I ever expected would happen to us. But I’ve never felt so FREE – so in love with humanity for the sake of humanity, itself. A Christian can ABSOLUTELY “just stop being religious.” I did. My husband did. Our family did. As I grappled with why my soul felt so liberated, and continued to study and search and read, I had no choice but to become an agnostic, and ultimately an atheist. I see the world through a much clearer lens now. Ironically, letting go of religion, and eventually any concept of God, has given my heart the capacity to love others like never before.

In a follow-up comment answering a question from a second correspondent, the woman continues:

I will tell you that my experience, including the order of events towards agnosticism and ultimately atheism, is a very common one among those who de-convert from Christianity. The actual desire to deepen one’s faith/study apologetics/sharpen one’s ability to defend one’s beliefs intelligently has led quite a few down the path I’ve taken. I have read many, many stories of Christians who were searching and ended up on the exact same path: at first bandaging the issues with a new denomination…which eventually revealed the man-made ugliness and restrictions of all denominations…which led to questioning organized religion…which led to abandoning organized religion…which led to embracing agnosticism…which ultimately led to atheism. I’m grossly oversimplifying this, of course. It was an agonizing journey, full of late nights and sleepless weeks. It started three to four years ago for me, but really ramped up over the summer and early fall. I lost my faith ultimately in a matter of months. It is one of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, times in my life.

The woman who styles herself, “Lost My Southern Graces,” is a closet atheist. She has not yet told her extended family or friends of her de-conversion: she is sure they will not understand, and that she will certainly lose her friends. She jokes that her community will “eat me alive.”

Why do some people walk away from the church? More deeply, why do some people walk away from faith itself? Although every person’s story will be uniquely theirs, I also imagine that there are some common threads which unite many of these stories. I certainly recognise aspects of my own story in hers, although ultimately, I ended up with faith renewed rather than faith lost.

In a recent sermon I identified five reasons for doubt including lack of opportunity, disillusionment with the church, moral, experiential and intellectual factors. It seems the second and fifth factors have played a role in “Lost My Southern Graces’” loss of faith. I resonate with her desire for a more aesthetic worship experience; evangelical worship is sometimes akin to a dry cracker biscuit at dinner time. But aesthetics alone are unlikely to sustain a rich and mature faith. The root of my own quite profound experience of doubt had its genesis in an intellectual approach to Scripture and faith. After being raised in a Roman Catholic family, I found my own faith in a quite fundamentalist Pentecostal sect which emphasised the truthfulness of the bible but in a very naive and idiosyncratic way. After about fifteen years with that group I began broadening my theological horizons, eventually taking a degree in theology during which I was introduced to critical study of the scriptures. “Lost My Southern Graces” is right: many a Christian’s faith has floundered on these shoals.

My boat almost capsized. For about two years I thrashed about this way and that, now so very uncertain of the sureties I had previously held. I no longer knew whether or not I could trust the Bible, believe in God, Jesus, heaven, or anything else. In hindsight, my faith was real enough. What was utterly insufficient for the impact of formal theological studies was the intellectual framework that surrounded and supported it. When that intellectual framework began to collapse, it felt as though my faith would also fail. But for the grace of God, it may have. It is possible to tear down and substitute a Christian intellectual framework with a more rationalist or secular worldview, and in so doing depart from the faith one once held. My problem was even more basic: my Christian intellectual framework was under-developed. I liken it to a primary-school understanding of Christian faith trying to withstand the assault of tertiary-level critical studies. In cases like this, something has to give and often, it is the faith that gives. This is part of the reason (not the only reason of course) why so many young Christians flounder when they enter university studies.

What helped me tremendously was undertaking a directed study programme toward the end of my undergraduate degree on Scripture, Revelation and Authority during which I had to research and write two major papers. The first was an analysis and assessment of various Evangelical approaches to biblical authority, and the second an analysis and assessment of Karl Barth’s doctrines of revelation and scripture. The first paper helped me discover that one can hold a high view of scripture in a number of different ways, and that some models, indeed, are much better than others. But it was Karl Barth who really helped me. Although I do not go all the way with Barth, it was his trinitarian and christological approach to revelation and scripture that gave me the intellectual framework I needed for a more adequate doctrine of scripture capable of intelligent engagement with the world of critical study and of sustaining a devotional practice whereby the bible functions in a sacramental way in my life, a vehicle for the presence, wisdom, and encounter with God.

That was almost twenty years ago. I still face doubts from time to time but do so now from a position of greater understanding. My faith has been deepened and enriched. I am quite aware of the contingent nature of faith now, and hopefully I no longer exhibit the triumphalist and somewhat arrogant note that once I think I did.

“My” faith? Yes. My faith is genuinely mine in the sense that it is my response to, and decision in the light of, God’s initiating movement of grace toward me. But in a deeper and much more wonderful sense, it is not mine at all. More than anything else I have come to realise that it is not me that holds onto him, but he who holds onto me.

I have found that God is greater, even than our unbelief. “Lost My Southern Graces” has outgrown the church, outgrown Christianity, outgrown even, she says, the concept of God. My hope though, is that she can never outgrow God himself.

As for me, I found I could not outgrow Christianity, but my understanding of Christian faith had been outgrown and needed to grow up. When it did grow up, I found a large and roomy house, and even some of those rooms which still hold difficult questions find a place in this lovely and light-filled house.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-29)

A Sermon on Sundays – Matthew 13:53-58

Brown, Nathan & MelissaIt has been a pretty busy couple of weeks, so I apologise for the lack of posts. I have just had the privilege of preaching at Church at: Collective, a relatively new church plant in Hawthorn, Victoria. Although I had to suffer the indignity of going to Hawthorn (think Dockers 2014; Eagles 2015), it is a blessed church, with a wonderful sense of God’s presence in the worship and Lord’s Supper, and rich community amongst the folk there. Pastors Nathan and Melissa (pictured) and their team are providing rich and substantial ministry for the congregation and people in their district. The church has been working its way each Sunday through Matthew’s gospel, and so my appointed text was the little story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, at the end of the chapter on parables. Here is an outline of my  very first message in Melbourne…

1. Jesus Goes Home
The parables of Matthew 13 paint a vibrant picture of the coming and way of the kingdom. Its coming is inevitable, irresistible and progressive, but it is not necessarily easily. The kingdom faces resistance, opposition, and rejection.

Jesus’ reception in his hometown is surprising: those who know him best reject his ministry. In a series of seven questions bookended with “where does he get this stuff?” his friends and neighbours conclude he is no one special, perhaps even a fraud. And they were offended at him. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus has pronounced blessing upon those who are not offended with him (11:6). Why were they offended? Why did they refuse to believe? Perhaps their doubts arose when they started considering all these common-place questions, contrasting what they have heard about Jesus with the everyday “facts” of who they “knew” him to be.

2. Reasons for Doubt
a) Some people doubt because they do not have sufficient background and simply cannot believe. They need first to be inducted into the life, knowledge and tradition of the community so they are prepared by the Holy Spirit to believe;

b) Some people doubt on account of the “family” of Jesus—just like in this passage. Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

c) Some people’s doubt is experiential—unanswered prayer, difficulties of life and unmet expectations have left them wounded or disillusioned.

d) Some people’s doubts are moral: they resist the call and the claim of the kingdom.

e) Some people’s doubts are intellectual: the enigma of evil challenges their confidence in the goodness or even existence of God; or the prevalence of scientific naturalism seems to provide explanation enough of the world with the result that God is not needed.

Moments or periods of doubt are quite normal in the Christian life, and may even be the proof of an underlying faith, that in one’s hearts of hearts, one actually believes. Nonetheless doubt is a serious threat for like a wound, doubt can fester into unbelief which is a hardness of heart and a refusal to trust God. In our text tonight, that is just what has happened.

3. Revelation (Matthew 11:25-28)

Although each kind of doubt may require a different response, in each case what is most required is an experience or deeper appropriation of revelation—something easier said than done. Revelation of God is not something we control but something we receive. It is, however, something for which we might pray, both for ourselves and for others. Earlier in his gospel Matthew speaks of the revelation of God given to those who are children (Matthew 11:25-28). This text shows first, that revelation has an aspect of divine sovereignty; it also insists that whosoever will respond to Jesus’ call may come. Unbelief is not inevitable: we may come. Second, the text also shows that God remains hidden, even in his revelation. The treasure of the gospel always comes clothed in an earthen vessel (Bruner). The glory of God was hidden in the humanity of Jesus. When the people of Nazareth stumbled over Jesus’ apparent humanity, they were not open to receive the knowledge of his divinity.

God’s revelation, whether in Christ, Scripture or the proclamation of the church, works in a similar way: it comes clothed in the weakness of humanity. If we stumble or become offended at this human weakness, we will miss the revelation God gives of himself to us.

4. Faith
And Jesus did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief (cf. Mark 6:6). According to Frederick Bruner, “Faith is the ordinary way to Jesus’ help. When faith is not present…not much happens” (2:62). The corollary is also true: where faith is present, it just may be that we will see and experience the saving presence and power of God. Faith occurs in the hearts of those who hear the word of the kingdom, receive it gladly, and understand it. It is amongst those that the word of the kingdom brings forth fruit.

And so Jesus says, “Come.” Will you come? Will you trust? Will you trust on the authority and confidence of others who have gone before you? Will you open your heart to Christ?

Scripture on Sundays – James 1:7-8

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:7-8 
For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

In these verses James continues, intensifies and extends his comments in verse 6 about the person who doubts. Not only are they driven and tossed like the surf of the sea, but that person (ho anthrōpos ekeinos;that is, the one who doubts) must not expect (oiesthō) that they shall receive anything from the Lord, for they are a “double-minded” person (anēr dipsychos), and unstable (akatastatos) in all their ways (en pasais tais hodois autou).

First, verse 7 comes as a great shock, especially after the portrait of God’s generosity in verse 5, which explicitly notes that God does not reproach his petitioners. Evidently, God does not reproach them for their lack of wisdom. Active doubting, however, seems to be another matter entirely. Is there a tension in the text here? God gives single-mindedly—but not to the doubter! God reproaches not—except for the doubter! Or is it the case that God is ever the generous giving God but our doubt so destablises us that we cannot watch for God’s giving because we are ever looking elsewhere; that we cannot receive God’s giving because we are ever turning elsewhere. Indeed, the doubting person must not expect to receive anything from God. Not only is their prayer for wisdom not going to bear fruit, but divine generosity is frustrated in their case.

James’ teaching on the relationship between faith and prayer echoes Jesus’ teaching on the same subject. The generosity of God and the assurance of answered prayer in verse 5 echoes Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:7-11. But Jesus also warned his disciples concerning the problem of doubt:

Matthew 21:21-22
Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and case into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.

In this text, as in James, faith is set in contrast to the problem of doubt and made a condition for answered prayer. Without this faith, says James, do not even think that your prayer will be answered.

James goes further, however, moving beyond the dynamics of prayer to the character of the person, from spirituality to ethics. The doubting person is double-minded, literally, two-souled, in contrast to God who is haplōs (v. 5), generous and single-minded. It is possible that James has coined the word he uses here (and in 4:8)—dipsychos—for this is the first occurrence of the word in extant ancient Greek.

The way in which James has constructed his brief instruction on prayer suggests that he sees a correspondence between God and true human and spiritual maturity. As God is single-minded in his generosity, so those who approach him are to be single-minded in faith. In response to God’s kind and active benevolence, the person of faith hopes, waits, watches, endures, rests, expects, and depends upon God, answering God’s faithfulness with their own responsive faithfulness in return.

The contrast could hardly be starker. The person who doubts anxiously scurries about seeking means to establish their own right and opportunity rather than waiting watchfully for God’s activity and resting in God’s provision. Doubt is independence and self-reliance rather than dependent reliance on God. In place of patient and resolute endurance, the person who doubts is impatient and unstable. James especially identifies this characteristic in the final clause, identifying the doubter as “unstable in all their ways.” The whole tenor of the person’s life and conduct is “thrown into doubt.” Their doubt toward God is indicative of a much deeper and more pervasive flaw in their character: their instability is not simply with respect to their prayer for wisdom, but is also evident with respect to their conduct under trial, their relationships, and their conduct within the community.

Scripture on Sundays – James 1:6

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:6
But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.

The “let him ask of God” in verse 5 is echoed and extended by the “let him ask in faith” of verse 6. Again James uses a link-word to tie two verses together, this time aiteitō (ask). Just as he used the imperative to instruct those who lack wisdom to ask God for it, now he uses the imperative to instruct those who do ask for wisdom, to ask for it in faith. One indeed may lack wisdom but one must not lack faith. Faith, in this context, is single-minded trust in the giving God. James’ logic is simple: if God is so generous and single-minded in his giving, the believer is likewise to be single-minded toward God.

We recall that the believer’s faith is already under threat, being tested and tried (v. 3). Pressure mounts to destroy their faith—their single-minded trust in God. Faith, it seems, governs the relationship the believer has with God. Faith is the characteristic of this relationship seen from the believer’s side. From God’s side the characteristic of this relationship is better understood in terms of grace, of God’s generous and freely given gift. James hints, as we have seen, at this in verse 5. In verses 17-18 he underlines the primacy and centrality of God’s generous gift. At present, however, his focus is on the believer’s appropriate response to God’s generous promise.

Faith is not simply a belief although belief is an important aspect of faith. Faith is not simply agreement with or assent to a doctrinal position, although such knowledge is also an important aspect of faith. Faith includes but is not limited to knowledge or belief. In his Truth Aflame, Larry Hart (420) shows the relation between these three qualities of Christian faith. He notes that since at least the Reformation, theologians have understood saving faith in terms of notitia, that is, the body of knowledge that makes up the truth claim of the gospel, and assensus which refers to the belief one has when they have heard the Christian message and become persuaded of its truthfulness. These two responses, however, are not yet faith in full flower. Simply knowing and believing are not sufficient in themselves but must come to completion in fiducia which is the trust and existential commitment by which we entrust ourselves to God on the basis of his promise which we have heard and which we have acknowledged and believed as true. Faith is a single-minded, existential dependence on God, a watching, waiting and expectant dependence in which the whole being of the believer is oriented and turned toward God in confident and assured hope. Faith is not simply an intellectual commitment, but a relational response and devoted commitment to the God who has awakened our hearts and opened our eyes to his reality, presence and grace.

This is faith as James conceives it here, where he contrasts faith with doubt (diakrinomenos). The two phrases “in faith” and “without any doubting” express the same point from different angles. What is positively expressed in the former expression is negatively expressed in the latter.

Matthew’s gospel provides a dramatic illustration of the kind of doubt James has in mind here, in the story of Peter walking on the sea (Matthew 14:22-33). Peter is already participating in the miracle, walking on the water with Jesus and toward Jesus, and on the basis of Jesus’ word to him, “Come.” But verse 30 indicates that Peter began to give his attention to the wind and waves rather than to Jesus, and as he did so, he began to sink. In the midst of his doubt he cried out to Jesus and was saved. Nevertheless Jesus’ question highlights the temptation we continually face: ” O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

To doubt is to engage in dispute with oneself, to waver between two options, to be “double-minded” (James 1:8) rather than single-minded. Doubt anxiously looks in multiple directions rather than steadfastly watching toward God. James goes on to provide a vivid picture of the one who doubts, likening that person to a wave or the surf of the sea, “driven by the wind” (anemizomenō) and “tossed” (rhipizomenō). Both of these participles are present-passive, indicating that the doubter is continuously  bobbing about, as Vlachos images, like a cork in a stormy ocean (27). This image conveys restlessness, a person acted upon by other forces, ever in motion but without genuine purpose. As such, the picture is virtually the opposite of the solidity, steadfastness and resolute endurance portrayed in verse 4.